Not the First Time: Foreign Interference in the Election of 1940

By Teddy Tawil

Many said it would be the most important election in American history; dystopian stories were written about what might happen if the “America First” candidate triumphed. After two terms in control, the Democrats nominated a candidate on the verge of a first in American history. Out of a large Republican field, an underdog political outsider emerged victorious. A foreign adversary waged a sophisticated disinformation campaign to influence election results. 

And the Nazis almost succeeded. That’s right, this was the U.S. election of 1940. 

Eighty years ago, America became the site of a vicious, clandestine information war, a forgotten chapter of our history with important lessons for today. 

As the election approached, Nazi Germany dominated Europe, but it was still unclear whether the U.S. would intervene or even support Britain; Pearl Harbor would only happen a year later. The German Naval War Staff contended that the decision depended “solely on the will of the United States and its President and not on Germany’s future actions.” 

Hoping to forestall American involvement, Nazi leader Hermann Göring allocated $5 million toward supporting isolationist politicians like Charles Lindbergh. The German embassy commissioned the publication of books, articles, op-eds, and even novels to sway Americans toward isolationism. They paid for full-page newspaper advertisements advocating neutrality, and spent at least $160,000 bribing delegates to withdraw their support for FDR.

The German propaganda ministry even fabricated, published, and distributed fake documents allegedly showing that FDR had encouraged Poland to invade Germany. They became front-page news

But then came the exposés. One proved that the Nazis funded America First, the leading isolationist group, causing public outcry. Another revealed a scheme to distribute Nazi propaganda through the Congressional Record. Published under the bylines of American journalists, they were actually the work of British intelligence. 

Britain launched a rival influence campaign, aimed at thwarting isolationists, that was even more extensive. It utilized many dubious tactics, including “forgeries, seductions, burglaries, electoral dirty tricks, physical surveillance, intercepting and reading letters sent under diplomatic seal, illegally bugging offices and tapping phones.” British intelligence worked with influential columnists, deployed “October surprises” against isolationist candidates, published fake polls overstating support for sending Britain aid, and strong-armed Republican nominee Wendell Willkie into not criticizing FDR on certain issues. All, shockingly, with the approval of FDR and the FBI. 

Worryingly, the effort was successful. A later history written by senior participants implies that planting pro-British stories in American newspapers was crucial in garnering support for Roosevelt to assist Britain. 

These adversarial operations serve as case studies for how the government can both quash and encourage election interference. Congress investigated and exposed Nazi propaganda. The media reported on their sensationalist, planted stories with caution. This coordinated effort proved effective. By the end of April, a discouraged German embassy reported that “feeling toward Germany has deteriorated extraordinarily.” 

But with the tacit support of American leaders, Britain was able to help shape the national conversation. It was benign then, as Britain advocated for the U.S. to defend global democracy (ironically, by undermining the democratic process). But now? Less so. America’s counterintelligence chief has warned that Russia, China, and Iran will all try to interfere in the 2020 election. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who has been briefed on classified material, warns that this campaign “make[s] Moscow’s past interference and nefarious actions look like child’s play.” 

Appeasement and dismissal didn’t work then. And it won’t now.

Title Image Credit: John Phillips–Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images